The Rise of Independent Politicians and What It Means for Australia
Last weekend, the voters of Wentworth came together to decide on a replacement for ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to represent their areas of interest in the Lower House of Federal Parliament.
Wentworth, for many years, has been a safe Liberal seat. This year, however, the Libs have lost the seat. The seat was not lost to Liberal candidate Dave Sharma's Labor counterpart. It was lost to independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps.
Dr Phelps stands for the centre, a space on the political spectrum that is really not well represented in Australia at the moment. Socially and environmentally, she leans towards the left; economically, she leans towards the right. Her progressive politics combined with her fiscal conservatism is what won the hearts of many in her electorate.
It also didn't help that the Coalition so incompetently mishandled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's leadership in the most recent leadership spill. Coalition politicians risked their majority government, and possibly their chance at the 2019 election, for the chance at having a new Prime Minister, who was even further removed from the politically unrepresented centre. In this way, Dr Phelps appointment was a protest vote.
The voters are losing faith in the two major political parties. The last time a government held majority in both the Upper and Lower House was in 2004 when John Howard was still in power. Since the 2007 election when Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory in the Lower House, but the Coalition still held power in the Senate, we have seen a progression of Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison as well as a swing towards minor parties. These have included the rise of the Australian Greens, Family First Party, Democratic Labour Party, Palmer United Party, Katter’s Australian Party, Liberal Democratic Party, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, Nick Xenophon Team, Jacqui Lambie Network, Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party… just to name a few.
The irony of this is the cycle we find ourselves in as a nation. We are becoming more disillusioned with the major parties, so we vote in minor parties. The major parties have to work harder in order to pass legislation as they need to win the support of these minor parties. Less legislation is passed through either or both of the Houses, and the voters feel more discontent. They vote in more minor parties, and we find ourselves here - facing another minority government as we did with Gillard in 2010. Need I remind you how that played out?
It’s no secret from my work with the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development that I am over the moon that Dr Phelps is planning to campaign passionately for climate change in the House of Representatives. I am a big advocate for taking urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change and to switch to affordable, clean, reliable and renewable energy. However, I hold my breath about the effectiveness of a minority government between now and the next election. With this fresh in the voters’ minds, will we see an even stronger swing towards independents in the 2019 election? I fear that we will, and that the efficiency and effectiveness of our democratic system will only get worse before it gets better. We will only see a swing back to the major parties when passing legislation in either of the houses becomes an impossible task. In the meantime, what will happen to the country?
There is no perfect solution as to how we return to the strength of the political climate we enjoyed in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s with Hawke, Keating and Howard. However, efforts can be made both on the part of politicians and voters.
On the politicians’ part, increased communication with voters will allow them to make more informed decisions as to how they can best represent their voters’ interests. I have only ever been surveyed by one Senator for my electorate, never by an MP, and the survey I did was a long time ago now. This does make me wonder how my elected representatives know if they are actually representing my interests in Parliament or not. Will they just be returned to their position by the voters at the next election because they outweigh the alternative option?
Federal politicians need to have more of a presence. I see my elected representatives at a territory level constantly in the community, at local events, door-knocking holding mobile offices at the local shops; my territory representatives are everywhere. At a federal level, I feel like I’m disconnected by the people whose job is to represent me. When the election is announced, however, they all of a sudden appear and try to win my support over a short campaigning stint, even though they have had three years (or longer) to build some form of a relationship with me and win me over.
On the voters’ part, we need to be proactive in communicating with our politicians. We need to be sending them emails, calling them, making appointments, writing articles, tweeting, instagramming - every form of communication we can get our hands on, we must use. Instead of protesting in our votes, we need to actually protest. We need to stand up for what we believe in and advocate for change. This is the only way we will see legislation passed in Parliament for the better of our nation.